• Robert Spicer

Welfare rights workers: help people to organise to fight back for themselves

Positive proposals for welfare rights workers

Such workers should devote much more of their time and energy to organising self-help, community-based groups in the following areas:

  • Tenants’ associations, with the aim of developing tenants’ ability to enforce their own rights and to improve their housing conditions through aggressive collective action.

  • Claimants’ unions, so that claimants themselves may fight to improve their position by informing themselves as to social security regulations and the development of tribunal expertise.

  • Squatters’ associations, formed to take over empty houses where the state and its agencies are unable or unwilling to provide decent accommodation. An important function of the trained welfare rights worker in this area should be to advise squatters of the risks of criminal prosecution.

  • In relation to the huge problem of illiteracy, which is becoming ever more serious in a high-technology society, instead of advice workers reading out letters to their clients, or explaining over and over again the meaning of gas bills and incomprehensible application forms, moves should be made towards developing community-based programmes of adult education and English teaching. The state has patently failed to teach large numbers of people how to read and write. New community schemes should aim to help people to educate themselves and to resist the oppression of an obscurantist bureaucracy.

  • A national boycott of all tribunals for a specified period with the express, publicised aim of exposing the inadequacies of the tribunal system.

Forty years ago, the discussion of such proposals was commonplace. Claimants’ unions, tenants’ associations and squatting groups were widespread and influential. Welfare rights work, then in its infancy, seemed to be moving in the direction of organising the poor to fight back for themselves, with the help of literate professionals. The Up Against the Law collective could state in Issue 2 of its magazine:

The law holds us in chains – if we can’t begin to see the chains, how can we begin to free ourselves? But the struggle isn’t limited to the courts. Up Against the Law is about more than defence – it is a part of people’s “crime” – tenants’ groups, strikes, squats, occupations – a class offensive against the people in power.

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